Prof. Dr. Marcel Poorthuis

  • Vita

Marcel J.H.M. Poorthuis (born 23-7-1955 in Hilversum, The Netherlands) is Catholic by upbringing and out of conviction. He finished gymnasium in 1973. He studied theology and specialised in Jewish studies. His dissertation (1992) dealt with the philosophical commentaries on the Talmud by the French-Jewish philospher Emmanuel Levinas. Together with philosopher Joachim Duyndam, he wrote an introduction to Emmanel Levinas, that has appeared in the prestigious series Kopstukken. At present he is a board member of the Levinas company in the Netherlands.

In 1985 he finished his study of music at the Conservatory in Hilversum. After working at the secretariat of the Catholic Church in the Netherlands for Jewish – Christian relations, he started his reseach at the Catholic Theological University of Utrecht in 1992. He coordinates the ‘Forschungsschwerpunkt Relations Between Judaism and Christianity  ). This research focuses upon image formation of religious identity. Publications treat the image formation of Judaism over the last 150 years as well as the image of Buddhism in the Netherlands. A third interdisciplinary and collective research in this field deals with the image formation of Islam in the Netherlands.

In addition, his work for the Forschungsschwerpunkt brings together Christian and Jewish scholars in interdisciplinary conferences. Partners in this enterprise are the Bar Ilan University and the Schechter Institute, both  in Israel, and the Protestant Theological University of Kampen, the Netherlands. The results of these conferences are published in the International series Jewish and Christian Perspectives (Brill publishers, Leiden, The Netherlands) ( He is co-editor of this series.

He also co-edited the publication The three rings. Textual studies in the historical trialogue of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Peeters 2005), testifying of his interest in the authoritative sources of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. His most recent publication in this field is a commentary on the earliest Christian polemics against Islam: John of Damascus and Abu Qurra.

In the field of dialogue between religion and humanism, he conducted several research projects: humanism and religion: obstacles and bridges; and: The actuality of sacrifice.

He is a member of the Catholic Council for the Relations between Judaism and Catholicism in the Netherlands. He is on the board of the foundation ParDeS: Jewish wisdom in the world of today.   

He was invited to act as opponent in several defenses of dissertations: At the University of Tilburg (Tineke de Lange, on Abraham in the Gospel of John), at the University of Leuven, Belgium (Frederique Glorieux, on theological pluralism), at the Free University of Amsterdam (‘s Gravesande on yihud (unity) in the thought of Martin Buber), recently on Inculturation in India, He participated in several projects of the Theological Faculty of the University of Leuven.

His publications on Judaism, early Christianity and philosophy are in Dutch, English and German. 

He is married and father of four children, two boys and two girls.

  • Forschungsprojekt

Rituals and interreligious dialogue: strange bedfellows?

Rituals are probably the last category of religious phenomena (after ideals, texts and ethics), to experience a post-modern revival. The name of a well-known firm for perfumes and lotions, Rituals,  is telling in this respect. The de-institutionalizing of religion has created ample space for both old and new rituals, stemming both from within one religion as from multiple religions and cultures. In addition, civil rituals have maintained their place in society.

The scholarly literature on rituals is vast and growing. One of the principal questions to be answered is: what is a ritual? Answers vary: initiation to a new phase in life, recurring markers of time (Calendrical rituals), re-enactment of myth in ritual (the so-called rite-myth debate), establishing the boundaries between the in-group and out-group, allowing for a non-verbal channeling of emotions, sharing experiences of sports, music, art, etcetera (see: Ronald Grimes, Catherine Bell and others).  Study of rituals, both traditional and postmodern,  implies research into the ‘sacred’ space, the people present, the gestures and the words, food regulations, the (holy) language, (religious) leadership and frequency of meetings (‘sacred moments’). (1)

The last decade the question has arisen whether interreligious meetings should allow for rituals as well.(2) Until then, guidelines for interreligious dialogue have remain mainly verbal. Vis-à-vis secularization the need may be felt to share religious experiences at interreligious encounters; rituals merely as barriers to interreligious encounter can be felt to be inadequate and as a stumblingblock. At first sight, there is a whole range of possibilities: prayer, silence, dance, music, both classical instrumental music and religious music performed by one of the representatives of the religions present. The problems are nevertheless considerable: does not that lead to syncretism, to an atmosphere of emotions without a cognitive basis, to a conception of multiple belonging and of pluralism which is hardly compatible with the foundations of each religion? From a practical point of view: it is no coincidence that pope John Paul 2 can be found on the internet as the protagonist of the Antichrist.

Both the fundamentalist Pius X Fraternity as a wide array of protestant fundamentalists agree to that, especially because of the meeting on Assisi with major religions of the world, during the World Day of Prayer. The pope’s kissing of the Koran during his visit to the Umayyad mosque in Damascus was another proof fur fundamentalists of a pernicious syncretism.

It is obvious that traditional regulations about prayer, rituals and shared worship in a given religion will not be sufficient to cope with new situations. Still, it is mandatory to have a thorough knowledge of the rules in each given religion (halakha, sharia, Christian moral and canonical rules), to analyse the obstacles and to envisage the possibilities of interreligious encounter.

My research will be limited to the monotheistic, ‘Abrahamic’ religions. The framework will include both postmodern perceptions of rituals and fundamentalist convictions, as well as traditional descriptions and regulations of rituals.

(1) See: A. Houtman, M. Poorthuis , J. Schwartz (reds), Sanctity of time and space in religion and modernity, Brill Leiden 1992; M. Poorthuis and J., Schwartz, A holy people, Brill Leiden, idem, Purity and holiness, Brill Leiden 2000.

(2) M. Moyaert and J. Geldof (red.),  Ritual Participation and Interreligious Dialogue, Boundaries, Transgressions and Innovations, Bloomsbury 2017.